A parent’s work is never done

I’ve always described parenting as “the most important job I’ll ever have,” and don’t feel that calling it “a job” lessens it, because it’s work: 24/7, no retirement, no vacation, on-the-job training, high risk, high reward, fun, challenging, engaging work. But in a guest blog post on Work It, Mom!, Kimberly proposes differently – that motherhood is a life, not a job, because it’s not something you can separate from who you are. I think she states her case well, and I can see the perspective, but let me suggest this:

Parent is an identity
Parenting, the work of raising a child, is a job – or if you prefer, an occupation, a career, or even a vocation

Having stated that, it seems to me that there are certain basic elements to the job of parenting, including but by no means limited to:

  • Giving love and emotional support
  • Providing physical safety and security, and meeting material needs
  • Ensuring educational opportunity and mental growth
  • Guidance in navigating a complex world

In performing this job, hierarchy must be respected – the parent is the one in charge.

It’s not the parent’s function to satisfy every little whim and want the child has. It’s also not the parent’s function to protect the child from every potential ego bruise or hurt feeling – in fact, this can counteract the “ensuring growth” and “guidance” functions. While it may pain us, as parents, to see our children suffer a hard knock sometimes, we need to remember that we’ve learned and grown from our own hard knocks – and if we let them, so will they. With luck, it will inhibit the growth of an outsize sense of entitlement which, while it may seemingly benefit an individual, doesn’t serve the communities we all need to function within.

I’ve read a few interesting pieces recently regarding parental responsibilities in this area.

Susan Wagner made some interesting observations at her sons’ weekend soccer games (emphasis added by me):

It’s okay to win; it’s also okay to lose. It’s okay to say that one team played better or ran harder or had stronger skills. You can say all of those things to a child without making him feel bad. This whole trend away from score keeping and competition, this urge to teach kids that everyone is equal and that the playing field (if I may) is always level makes me crazy. Not everyone is good at everything. Period. Some of us have natural talent, some of us have social advantages, some of us have a deep desire to succeed. It is important to recognize and acknowledge those things, in yourself and in your child and in others. If my kids don’t get anything else out of sports, I hope they learn how to win and lose gracefully, how to play as part of a team, how to do their best. Healthy competition–supportive, constructive, enthusiastic competition–builds character.

My generation of parents doesn’t really believe this, it seems. We believe that saying NO to our kids harms their self esteem, that uniforms restrict creativity, that keeping score encourages hurt feelings.

I don’t buy any of that. In fact, I think we’re underestimating our kids and their ability to dig deep and succeed, and to feel good about making the effort.

Mir Kamin read Susan’s post, and was inspired to elaborate (again, emphasis added by me):

It is ALL OF OUR JOBS to help our children reach their potential. Can we agree on that? I think we can. What we apparently can’t agree upon is how that happens…Our generation has been taught that we should tell our kids that EVERYONE IS EQUAL and WINNING DOESN’T MATTER. Believing that all human beings are of equal worth and entitled to the same opportunities IS NOT THE SAME AS deciding that everyone has exactly the same strengths and weaknesses. Believing that playing a sport or participating in other organized activities are important just for the fun of it DOES NOT PRECLUDE keeping score and having winners.

Part of the reason I am unapologetic about catering to my children’s academic excellence is because I am only too aware that this is but ONE FACET of their lives and obligations. There are lots of ways in which other children run circles around my children. And in life we ALL have both strengths and weaknesses. Isn’t our job as parents to celebrate the strength and teach them how to cope with the weakness?

…The point here is that my children are not perfect. I don’t tell them that they are. What I tell them is that they’re good at some things and not good at others, and I expect them to try their hardest and do their best and have fun when they can and lose gracefully when they must. I refuse to tell them they’re the best at everything OR that it doesn’t matter, because they’re not and it does.

Reading Mir’s post, I was reminded of Dash saying, in The Incredibles, “If everybody’s special, then nobody’s special.” And this “everybody’s special” way of thinking – and parenting, and educating – can’t totally be laid at the feet of the current generation of parents, since I believe it’s actually been emerging over the last 15 to 20 years, during my own son’s childhood and teen years. And as these special people begin emerging into adulthood, some studies are showing them to be the most overly-entitled, narcissistic generation* ever.

(*As an aside, I’ve said some indignant things about these folks, but I have mixed feelings about my position, since I’m a parent to someone in that generation, and I guess I’d really like to think “well, my kid’s different” and “that’s not the way I raised mine.” There’s a very good, well-balanced, and lengthy article about “The New Me Generation” on Boston.com.)

Like Susan and Mir, parents don’t have to buy into this, and they have other options. Christie Mellor talks about one simple yet essential tool for all parents to get comfortable using:

What are you going to do? Er, maybe say No? Maybe I’m being unfair in assuming that a spoiled teenager will behave irresponsibly if given carte blanche to do so. But let’s just say. And let’s just say that you should have used the magic “No” word more often when your child was small, and constantly twisting your arm to get what he wanted. It does no good to kick yourself now for all those times you should have realized that perhaps your child wasn’t really “negotiating,” he was actually just “getting his own way.” But it’s not too late! It’s never too late. I see that same look from (a five-year-old’s mother), every time she sweetly tells him “no,” in a gooey baby voice and he screams back at her demanding whatever it is he wants, and she gives it to him just to shut him up. And if I’m in the vicinity, I get the look. The “what are you going to do?” look, with the tiny, apologetic smile and the wee shoulder shrug. The look that says, “Oops! I think I’m helping my child become a monster, but I just can’t help myself!” And for moms who work, there is often the guilt factor to contend with. You haven’t seen your little guy for most of the day, and you don’t want to be the one to deny his wishes. So…just this once. What’re you going to do? He’s so adorable when he screeches at the top of his lungs like that, how can I resist? But you really must; it is necessary for his future as a sociable human, and for your present sanity. It won’t hurt a bit, and will make you feel properly empowered as a parent.

Try it. You know how to do it. Just put your lips together, and say “No.”

Oh, and before I forget: Penelope, please stop trying to send our college graduates back to live with us! We’ve worked very hard to prepare them for life on their own. Yours truly, Parents of Young Adults.

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  1. I keep thinking I’ve got a post in me about the value of going back home – but I don’t have any arguments to make, really, just the knowledge that my mother and I both seem to have a weird nostalgia for this time nine years ago, when I moved back home utterly wrecked by the dissolution of my marriage, and my mom put me back together again. You would think it would be stifling to know that my mom considers my house 30 min. away from hers to be TOO FAR AWAY – but to me it’s always just made me feel loved.

  2. Bubandpie – If my son’s life got to a crisis point like the one you describe, my door would be open. No question. He’s on his own now, but there may be a time he needs to retrench, and that’s what “home” is for. I just didn’t want him back right after graduation, taking advantage of the comforts and not getting serious about making a living. (I may be generalizing about slackers here, I know – but I don’t want my kid to be one.)

    What’s driving me nuts when I keep blogging about this is this stance encouraging recent college graduates to delay getting a real start on their adult lives by returning to the old homestead, since it doesn’t seem to consider anything except the perceived advantages for the kids.

    I feel like the situation you’re talking about is something different. I see that as taking a retreat back home to recover from a life setback, as opposed to delaying life in the first place, I guess. There wasn’t really “home” for me to go back to when my first marriage ended, but I did want family around, and I moved 1800 miles to be near them – so I think I understand what you’re saying, in a way.